Trial by Jury in Florida

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A brief overview of the jury trial process in the State of Florida.

One of the fundamental principles of our criminal justice system is the right to a trial by jury. For some people, a jury trial is a viable option and presents the best opportunity for a favorable outcome. The decision to take a case to trial, and particularly a felony case, is serious one and should be carefully considered.

In Florida, with the exception of a first-degree murder
case, an accused is entitled to a six-person jury. In a first-degree murder case, twelve jurors are empaneled and sworn. In either scenario, the verdict must be unanimous. The verdict must be based solely on the evidence and testimony introduced during the course of the trial and on the law as the judge instructs. Pre-conceived thoughts, feelings or biases on part of a prospective juror, that would play a role in his or her deliberations, are a basis to challenge that prospective juror. Determining the existence of these pre-conceived notions or biases is the primary purpose of jury selection.

The State has the burden of proving each element, of each charge, beyond a reasonable doubt. The standard of proof in a criminal case is the highest standard of proof in the American legal system. The accused person is presumed innocent unless and until the state proves its allegations beyond a reasonable doubt. Further, the accused has no burden of proof; he or she is not required to prove or disprove anything. The accused has an absolute and unqualified right to remain silent which means he or she cannot be compelled to take the stand and testify in his or her own defense and the decision not to testify cannot be used as evidence of guilt.

In a trial situation, both the state and the defense are entitled to make an opening statement after jury selection has concluded. The defense may make an opening statement at that time, or may elect to do after the state has rested. It is sometimes done this way if the defense intends to put on a case.

The state puts its case on first. The defendant, through his or her attorney has the right to a thorough and sifting cross-examination of the state’s witnesses. Once the state has rested, the defense is entitled to motion for a judgment of acquittal. A judgment of acquittal is granted where the evidence and testimony, presented during the state’s case-in-chief, do not support the charge. If granted, the case is disposed of and the accused is free to go without conviction. If the motion is denied (and it usually is), the defendant has the option of calling witnesses in his or her defense and may also elect to testify. Once again, the defendant has no burden of proof and is not required to do either. If the accused person elects to take the stand, the state may inquire into prior felony convictions and prior misdemeanor convictions involving dishonesty or false statement. The judge will instruct the jury that they can take these prior convictions (if any) into account when weighing the credibility of the defendant's testimony.

At the conclusion of the defense case, the attorney will make a renewed motion for judgment of acquittal. It is usually denied. At that point, closing arguments commence. The state goes first and the defense goes next. The state is then entitled to present a rebuttal argument - the defense is not. In Florida, prior law dictated that if the defendant put on no witnesses other than the defendant himself or herself, then the defense was entitled to present a closing argument first and a rebuttal argument following the state's closing argument. That is no longer the case - the state goes first and last, with the defense closing in between, in all circumstances.

If the defendant is found guilty, the court has the authority to sentence the defendant up to the statutory maximum and is required to impose any minimum sentence that the law dictates based on the nature of the charge. If the accused is found not guilty, then he or she is free to go and is not deemed to have a criminal conviction. Depending on the circumstances, the accused may be in a position to seal or expunge their record following a not guilty verdict. Also, the state is constitutionally barred from re-initiating prosecution.

If you are facing a criminal charge, an experienced criminal defense attorney can provide more detail on the process and procedures involved and advise whether a trial is the best option for you given your particular circumstances.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Donald J. Kilfin
Attorney Donald J. Kilfin is a former Pinellas county state prosecutor. He owns and operates The Kilfin Law Firm, P.C., a Tampa Bay area DUI and criminal defense firm representing clients in St. Petersburg, Clearwater, Tampa, New Port Richey, Dade City, and Bradenton.

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Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer. For specific technical or legal advice on the information provided and related topics, please contact the author.

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